On the Shelf
10 May books for your reading list
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Critic Bethanne Patrick recommends 10 promising titles, fiction and nonfiction, to consider for your May reading list.
May has too many great releases to cover in a month, let alone in a column restricted to 10 titles. You’ll just have to head to your nearest bookstore (and read our pages in the coming weeks) to find out about the others. There’s still room on this list, however, for two of the year’s strongest fiction contenders, a major new biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and a history book so big it tries to encompass all of humankind.
By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Pantheon: 384 pages, $27
What if the U.S. penal system were allowed to raise money by having prisoners fight each other? In his first novel, author Adjei-Brenyah (“Friday Black: Stories”) maintains his dominance as the heir to George Saunders in the art of merging satire, social commentary and expert execution of bonkers premises. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are lovers forced to face off as gladiators. You can’t turn away from Adjei-Brenyah’s terrifying and relevant vision.
The Half Moon
By Mary Beth Keane
Scribner: 304 pages, $28
Will we ever tire of novels about marriage and community? Probably not, since those concepts continue to evolve, just as Malcolm and Jess Gephardt’s union will change in this low-key and poignant new book from Keane (“Ask Again, Yes”). Malcolm owns the titular bar and Jess is an attorney; class differences underlie personal strife as the couple struggles with adultery, fertility and civility.
The Covenant of Water
By Abraham Verghese
Grove: 736 pages, $32
Come to this epic novel by Verghese (“Cutting for Stone”) for the history of Kerala, India; stay for the devoted elephant. The bestselling author (and Stanford doctor) recounts the Parambil family’s ups and downs through a century of change, interlaying some of his medical expertise but never losing his commitment to how love allows people — and sometimes beasts — to choose goodness and care over politics and brutality.
By R. F. Kuang
William Morrow: 336 pages, $30
Kuang’s sophomore novel is a sharp publishing satire that takes on a lot: Asian American and Pacific Islander representation, betrayal, plagiarism and the irrational process of book deals. Novelist Athena Liu dies in her apartment, and her Yale classmate June Hayward senses an opportunity. Might this plot mirror aspects of a recent literary scandal? Who cares? It’s the read of the season.
By Emma Cline
Random House: 304 pages, $28
Unlike Cline’s attention-getting debut, “The Girls,” her new novel focuses on a single grifter. Alex, a sex worker, finds herself stranded in the tony Hamptons of Long Island. Fortunately, it’s summertime, and she finds that cadging shelter can be as easy as stealing a pair of flip-flops from a beach. But scams, like summer, can’t last forever, and Alex winds up in more trouble that she bargained for.
The World: A Family History of Humanity
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf: 1344 pages, $45
You read that correctly: Montefiore’s new opus runs to 1,344 pages. The historian has tackled complicated subjects before, including Catherine the Great and Stalin, but here his aim is to demonstrate human interconnectivity through the machinations and matches made — from the Ming Dynasty through the Arab empire all the way to presidents and oligarchs.
King: A Life
By Jonathan Eig
FSG: 688 pages, $35
The most comprehensive biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to date and the first to include research from FBI files on King, Eig’s mammoth, elegant tribute to the civil-rights leader will be definitive for some time. His accomplished reporting and writing bring a full portrait of King, saint and sinner, but mostly a complicated and compassionate revolutionary.
On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good
By Elise Loehnen
Dial: 384 pages, $28
While Loehnen specifically addresses the big Judeo-Christian sins in her look at how women have been held to impossible standards, she could just as well be writing about other global systems that seek to restrict all things female. Her chapters on greed and lust and more apply to nervous breakdowns, break-room donuts and the unbreakable glass ceiling.
Women We Buried, Women We Burned: A Memoir
By Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury: 272 pages, $29
Acclaimed journalist Snyder (“No Visible Bruises”) presents an affecting memoir about childhood trauma resonating throughout her life. Just 8 when her mother died, Snyder left her father’s cult-like household at 16, traveled the globe and learned a great deal about how others survive disaster. Excellent writing and a clear perspective enhance this primer on how to hope.
Everything All At Once: A Memoir
By Steph Catudal
HarperOne: 240 pages, $29
If you think you’ve read all the cancer memoirs, think again: Steph Catudal’s husband died of lung cancer in 84 days. Catudal had already seen her father die of the same disease, and her book shows the speed and inexorability of a family’s final weeks and then hours together, time that helped the author heal, grieve and heal again.